“To Job or not to Job”
The Dark Knight managed to do what few sequels fail to do: be better than the first (the brilliant Batman Begins). Like Iron Man, super hero movies are maturing and moving into new territory. Maturing doesn’t necessarily mean darker (as some seem to reflexively think), but rather deeper. All great movies start with a great script, and Christopher Nolan has teamed up with his brother, Jonathan (the team who brought us the classic movie, Momento), to provide a script with a depth and denseness. The drama affects us, comic book fan and non-fan alike, because the special effects don’t trump the performances nor the story. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) is clearly a troubled individual who struggles with his own humanity in the face of the war he wages. Now he becomes haunted by an adversary who wants him to shed his values in order to beat the devil at his own game.
Spider-Man 3 illustrated for us the folly of trying to cram too many origin stories into a movie, especially if knowing isn’t especially germaine to the storyline, character development, or theme. While several masked villains make appearances in The Dark Knight (Scarecrow, Joker, Two Face), we only see a “full” origin of Two Face (Aaron Eckhart). Continuing the pattern of forgetting about the previous series of movies, The Dark Knight corrects the travesty done in Batman Forever. In that, Joel Schumacher portrayed Two Face (I absolved Tommy Lee Jones of blame) as a mere henchmen, as opposed to his position as Batman’s number two nemesis (and, thematically, what Batman could become if he strays from his path). Only now do we get a serious examination of Two Face and in so doing, an examination of Batman, his mission, and his methods.
“In their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t understand.” –Alfred (Michael Caine)
On the other side of the villain coin is anarchy’s clown prince, the Joker. Heath Ledger mesmerizes with his hopefully soon to be Oscar nominated, Jack Nicholson meets Johnny Depp performance as The Joker. The first thing you have to wonder is why anyone would want to be one of the Joker’s minions, after all, your time with him is always subject to random whims (read: being killed). Granted, there is a coercive element to joining his team which doesn’t command exactly loyalty or sacrifice. Also, he draws henchmen much like himself: psychotic, paranoid schizophrenics. However, the Joker is far from commonplace insanity.
“The only way to live in this world is to live without rules.” –Joker
We see a darker Joker than we’ve come to know, a truly frightening vision who sees himself not as a monster, but merely “ahead of the curve”. As Alfred points out, we’re dealing with someone who “can’t be bought, bullied, or negotiated with. They just want to watch the world burn.” A fractal personality, sort of a postmodern insanity, he creates a new persona and history each day. With no name, no alias, to deal with the pain, contradictions, unfairness, and insanity of this world fractured his personality. A super genius, the Joker is simply the embodiment of man’s capability of evil, the monster we’re all capable of being. In fact, that’s his motivation: he wants to expose everyone as being no different than him.
“It wasn’t what I had in mind when I said I wanted to inspire people.” –Bruce Wayne
And yet the Joker is a reaction to Batman. The rise of costumed super villains in a lot of ways is simply a matter of evolution. As good stands up to evil, evil in turn won’t go quietly into the night. With the arrival of Batman in Gotham City, the brand of criminals seem to rise to the challenge. The everyday muggers and mob bosses have to adjust to life among “a better class of criminals”.
The Dark Knight is not a simple meditation on good and evil. It’s a complex tale that reminded me of another story that examined the nature of good and evil, why bad things happen and how we choose to respond to them: the biblical story of Job. In the story of Job, the Satan goes to God and tells him that people only worship Him because He blessed them. So God gives him permission to test the best of us, his servant Job. First his wealth is taken from him, then his family, then his health. In the end, he chooses to keep his faith in God though he does have a few choice questions for God in the end.
Which brings us to The Dark Knight.
“Their morals, their code, is a bad joke.” –Joker
The Dark Knight follows a Batman: Year One meets the classic comic, The Killing Joke, storyline. In it we have a battle for people’s souls. The Joker, much like Satan, has a simple thesis: our morals, what we cling to as laws in our polite society are matters of convenience which goes by the wayside when times get hard. In short, everyone would be like him if they simply had a bad enough day. The Joker hopes to show the schemers—all those who seek control and make plans for their lives—how pathetic their attempts to control the events around them are. He takes the plans of those around him and turns them on themselves. He’s a walking social experiment, an agent of chaos. He continues to devise situations that test the fabric of the morality of Batman, the police, the law, and society in general, humiliating them in the process if he can.
In any social experiment there must be a choice to do right or wrong, a chance for redemption. Without that choice, the experiment is moot. In light of his personal tragedy, his parents having been killed in front of him as a child, Batman chose to devote himself to the pursuit of justice and defending the weak or defenseless. His mission was one that set an example for others who also believed in what he stood for.
As solo a hero as Batman seems, he’s hardly as much a loner as we like to believe. Team Batman consists of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), head of Wayne Enterprises and provider of a lot of his technological toys; Harvey Dent, the face of justice in Gotham City; Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the police commissioner; Alfred Pennyworth, his faithful butler and the prophetic voice who speaks truth into Bruce Wayne’s life; and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), confidante and his personal hope for love and peace. Despite having many apostles, Jesus had his inner circle, for example, the ones he chose to witness his Transfiguration, and Batman’s circle of Gordon and Dent set the backdrop psychology of why no one wants to give up on Harvey Dent.
They face a crisis of methods. This “last temptation of Batman” was to catch a vision of what he’d have to become to stop men like the Joker, tempted by the idea of changing their ways in order to successfully fight this new band of villain. Theirs were the ways of law and order but the question proffered by the Joker was how far they were willing to go to preserve what’s right. To fight the good fight honorably or become like the Joker, without rules. The Dark Knight was literally the dark night of the soul (or as Alfred calls it, “a lesson in perseverance”) for Team Batman, but the fact that the night is darkest just before the dawn is lived in light of the hope that the dawn is coming.
“He can make the choice than no one else can. The right choice.” –Alfred
Our response to life’s trials is a choice. It is tempting to hold on to the anger and resentment that comes with life’s betrayals, becoming like the bitter monster Harvey Dent does. But part of forgiveness process is us venting our grief, frustration, and anger, only then can we continue with the healing/forgiveness process – letting go before we’re poisoned or driven insane. A Christian response is moving toward reconciliation, a forgiving of our enemy. Grace doesn’t preclude justice being done. Call evil deeds what they are: evil. We must protect the innocent. However, our actions must move toward redemption. And that was the model Batman chose to follow.
Jesus, the Christ, sets an example of revolutionary tactics in the face of madness: love, forgiveness, and sacrifice. He’s the hero we deserve and need. While the Devil may think he won, the Hero does the unexpected. He sacrifices himself for something greater. Guided by his love for Gotham city and Justice; and forgiveness of Harvey Dent, Batman chose to sacrifice himself.
“For now, they’re going to have to make due with you.” –Alfred
Batman is more than a super hero and The Dark Knight is more than a comic book movie. Both transcend their initial conception and show the possibilities of what others of their ilk can be. There simply aren’t enough superlatives for this movie. Intelligent, grown up, sophisticated, with a depth lacking from most movies period, much less super hero ones. Christopher Nolan’s overlapping and multiple storylines create (tragic) characters we come to care about. The performances, the confident sense of direction, the technical production all combine for a truly great cinematic experience, no matter how you may feel about the spandex set.
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